Part sport utility. Part urban utility. Finally a part of a market that everyone else seemed to be diving into except Mitsubishi.

A hearty welcome to the Japanese automaker for finally going where most of the world has dared to drive these past few years. In the age of bigger not necessarily being better, mini-SUVs are all the rage. And in its 2003 Outlander, Mitsubishi is finally taking the plunge, mainly because it's tired of watching market share go spiraling down the drain.

Ford's made its Escape. Honda's got a CR-V. And then there's a Forester, a Tribute and a RAV4 to contend with. Indeed, the view from the other side of the glass has been a decidedly envious one for the folks at Mitsubishi. At least until now.

In the five-door Outlander, Mitsubishi offers a totally new, completely affordable, entry-level crossover SUV with the all-weather capability of a midsize SUV in a stylish, car-like package. It will seat five, without cramping anyone's style. It will accept snowboards should the weather call for a ride.

Claiming "life's too short to drive a station wagon," Mitsubishi has collected all the elements of cargo capability, driveability, substance and style - without the wood-panel doors. Weekend of camping? No problem. Weekend spender at the mall? No problem.

Feel free to think of the new Mitsubishi Outlander as a rolling Swiss Army knife. A tall station wagon. A hatchback with sport utility styling cues. Another player in an increasingly competitive segment.

It's all about time for Mitsubishi. And it's all about carving out a niche in a market that's busting at the scenes with options. So why should you care another player has been added to the fray? The Outlander's options are just a little different, which, in the end, may make it not quite the same. It comes with a lower ride height than a typical small SUV, easing entry and exit without sacrificing a "command of the road" seating position and view over the hood.

Much like the Honda CR-V, the Outlander is powered by a 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine (that is borrowed from the Galant) that provides 140 horsepower and 157 pound-feet of torque. The torque figure comes in at just 2,500 rpm, delivering brisk performance at lower speeds. Regrettably, no V-6 is planned.

A four-speed Sportronic automatic transmission allows for manual-style, clutchless shifting and is the only drivetrain offered. Available in two- or all-wheel-drive configurations, the Outlander is longer than most of the competition and comes com plete with freshly modified, fully independent suspensions - MacPherson struts up front and a multilink coil-spring setup out back. Standard tires are 16-inchers. Standard city driving or unconventional hill climbing is not out of the question. Mitsubishi says that means a car-like nimbleness with more cargo capability, plus a higher ride height, better visibility and higher ground clearance in case the wilderness calls.

In all cases, they are right.

Two trim levels, base LS and upscale XLS, will be offered, and pricing will start at less than $19,000 with air conditioning, power package, CD audio and cruise control. A reasonable figure not all that different than its competition.

And, if anything, the Outlander at least resembles its peers. The front styling takes its cues from the Pontiac Vibe, while the large, tubular roof rack looks eerily like a Nissan Xterra and the back taillights resemble a Lexus. It's a case of borrowing from the best - and, from the road, it works.

On the inside, the five-passenger interior is simple, sporty and logical. Large round instruments with a raised dual-cowl hood make it stand out from the crowd. The 60/40 folding rear seatbacks make it fit in with the versatility department.

Built on the Lancer platform, the Outlander also comes with some interesting enhancements designed to keep the noise down and the ride quality up. Noise-canceling foam inside pillars and sound-deadening sheets of asphalt in the floor make the Outlander a quiet ride, Mitsubishi says.

With a car-like unibody construction and reinforced strategic welds and power rack-and-pinion steering, the automaker also promises the stability and control of a large car, not a lumbering SUV - but take a turn too hard, and the Outlander gets a little too outlandish.

On safety, anti-lock brakes are optional, as are side air bags for the front seats. All five riders get three-point safety belts.

Options are plentiful. There is a "Sun and Sound Package" that offers a premium, 210-watt Infinity sound system and a power sunroof. There's a Luxury package that adds heated leather seats, heated mirrors and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. Of course, the most important option might be the fact there finally is one in the mini-SUV market with Mitsubishi.

A long time coming. Worth the wait.


Rating: 2.5

High gear: Nimble-like car manners, a high level of style and maximum utility make this entry-level SUV an attractive, affordable alternative to a five-passenger sedan.

Low gear: Anti-lock brakes are offered only as an option on base models. Handling is a little sloppy around tough corners.

Vehicle type: Front- or all-wheel drive, five-passenger, front-engine mini sport-utility vehicle.

Standard equipment (LS, 2WD model): Electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission; power, tilt steering; auto-off headlights; folding power side-view mirrors; driver's and front passenger's air bags; air conditioning with manual climate control; cruise control; power windows, locks; driver's seat height adjustment; reclining front bucket seats; 60/40 split fold-down rear seatback; 12-volt outlets (2); 16-inch steel wheels; AM/FM/CD stereo.

Competition: Ford Escape, Honda CR-V, Mazda Tribute

Engi ne (LS, 2WD): 140 horsepower, 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder.

Torque: 157 foot-lbs. @ 2,500 rpm

Wheelbase: 103.3 inches

Length: 179.1 inches

MPG rating: 20 mpg city/25 mpg highway

Manufactured: Japan

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; powertrain warranty is five years/60,000 miles; rust perforation warranty is seven years/100,000 miles.

Base price (LS, 2WD): $17,997

Price as tested (includes options, destination and delivery charges): $17,997